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Northeast Indiana crime spree makes for a novel story

 

After retiring in 2003 from a highly decorated career in law enforcement, Lt. Tom Gratz had a story to tell. Harley C.I.: A Detective Story is the result.

In the early 1990s, Gratz and his longtime partner in the Allen County Sheriff’s Department’s Criminal Investigation Division investigated and brought to justice one of the most prolific burglary rings the state of Indiana had ever seen. In a span of just a few months, the Wells Street Gang, as they were known, stole tens of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise and caused nearly as much damage to property during the type of brazen crime spree more common to the mean streets of Chicago or New York than the cornfields of Indiana.

The burglars, led by a Ft. Wayne man, were experts at stealing safes from gas stations and convenience stores, cutting them apart and looting them, then dumping them along the back roads and byways of counties across the state. Gratz and his team were at their wits’ end in the case when a tattooed, smooth-talking ex-con named Scott Bell, a/k/a “Harley,” offered them his services as a confidential informant (C.I.).

Using skills he’d honed in drug-trafficking cases, Harley infiltrated the gang and was instrumental in the apprehension of several of its members. But along the way, he scammed the sheriff’s department, carried on a love affair with the gang leader’s sister, impersonated a preacher to gain confessions from the burglars he’d befriended, landed in the hospital with heart and alcohol problems, feuded with his ex-wife (nearly compromising the investigation in the process), went AWOL with a family from Ohio, and generally caused chaos for Gratz.

The C.I.’s unorthodox methods worked, though, culminating in a wild car chase and the arrest and prosecution of the gang members. The resulting narrative is an engaging, humorous, small-town police procedural – equal parts “Donnie Brasco” and “Fargo.”

When Gratz needed someone to help tell the story of Harley and the Wells Street Gang, he turned to veteran journalist Brian Hartz, who grew up in LaGrange County and has worked at several newspapers – including the LaGrange Standard-News – and magazines around the world. Hartz took Gratz’s account of the investigation and turned it into a novel that will fascinate true-crime fans interested in how a complex, long-term, multi-agency police investigation really works.

“When I worked the case, I told friends about it and they said I should write a book,” Gratz said. Gratz worked to gather the information on the case, but felt that he wasn’t a writer. “I worked with Brian’s dad at the LaGrange County Prosecutor’s Office. Brian read the information I had and was interested.”

 

“I always wanted to write a book,” Hartz stated. “I had done short stories and a lot of journalism before. Tom came to me with the bones of the story and had copious amounts of detail.”

Hartz took the details and worked it into a narrative to tell the story.

Hartz not only took Gratz’s notes, but interviewed the investigator as well. “I got a better picture of who was involved and especially the main character, Harley,” Hartz noted.

The heart of the story, between Gratz and Harley, is what made the story interesting, according to Hartz. “Tom was patient enough to put up with his (Harley’s) style of work,” he said. “They were ultimately successful in busting up the gang.”

“The undercover guy, he makes the story,” Gratz agreed. “He conned the good guys. He conned the bad guys. I had to stay on top of things with him.”

 Harley, Gratz said, used that skill to con others to get the information needed to bust up the gang. This included even borrowing the vehicle the gang used to commit the crimes so it could be tracked. “He told them he would get it tuned up,” Gratz recalled. The problem was, the tuned-up van was almost too much when it came time to capture the gang.

Gratz, who spend 31 years with the Allen County Sheriff’s Department and seven with the LaGrange County Prosecutor’s Office, is pleased that the book includes the real names of a lot of the officers who also worked the case. “They all worked hard on this case,” Gratz said, noting that it didn’t happen because of just one person. “It was multi-agency between Adams, Allen, Decatur, and Wells counties, and the state police,” he added.

Hartz is looking for the book to be published in the fall. The final proof is back at the publisher.

The chance to do a novel was a few years of work, but also a lot of fun. “I always liked journalistic writing, but writers like to be creative,” Hartz said. “I could let my creative side go. I could imagine the scenes, the dialogue, and all that.”

Still, Hartz feels he kept true to the story, keeping the story local and with the people who worked the case. “It’s their (the detectives) story. I didn’t want it to be in some anonymous town,” Hartz emphasized.

Hartz is a Lakeland High School graduate and received his Master’s degree from Indiana University. He worked at a newspaper in Bloomington before going international, first to New Zealand to work in the editorial departments for two magazines, and then returning to North America, where he edited a trade magazine in Toronto, Canada. Most recently, Hartz worked for a business magazine in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Hartz recently returned to Indiana, and is back in Bloomington where he is working for a publishing company.